PopMatters Best of Books 2008


by PopMatters Staff

5 January 2009


From Patrick Ecclesine to Ken Garner

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Faces of Sunset Boulevard

Patrick Ecclesine

A Portrait of Los Angeles

(Santa Monica Press)

A journey through Los Angeles in all its guises, states of mind, and urban terrains, a narrative in words and documentary photography format by commercial photographer Patrick Ecclesine that is every bit as engaging as any novel, an east-to-west journey that begins in downtown L.A. with its mix of street grime and corporate wealth and ends up at the beachhead echelons of Pacific Palisades. Faces of Sunset Boulevard is nothing less than a series of sobering snapshots of a western socio-economic system on the verge of collapse, a startling photo essay (with contextual comments from the photographer’s subjects) that sharply underscores the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the United States, wisely using the dichotomous and often hostile terrain of Los Angeles as a stand-in for the rest of the nation. The rich, the famous, the common and the uncommon, the dreamers and the dreams destroyed. This is what Nathanael West would have created if he had been handed a camera instead of a typewriter. Rodger Jacobs

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The Family

Jeff Sharlet

The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power


Review [12.Jun.2008]
What if the American fundamentalists’ power and influence became such that they helped destabilize the New Deal, played key roles in anti-Communist foreign policy during the Cold War, and supported numerous bloodthirsty dictators?  This is Jeff Sharlet’s stunning claim in The Family, one of the most important books on American religion and politics to appear this year. Sharlet is a talented religion journalist, and he capably synthesizes much of his reporting from the last several years. Relying on a keen sense of history and literature, he also provides a cogent meditation on democracy, power, and myths of American nationalism. The Family is a challenge to liberals as much as conservatives, and nonbelievers as much as the faithful. Nowhere is this more evident than the concluding paragraph, where Sharlet calls for “not simply a different answer, secular myths opposed to fundamentalism’s, but a question.” This call to let go of easy assumptions, to be willing to fight for an open democracy and fair religious practices, is a fitting ending to a book that is simply outstanding in its research, narrative, and conclusions. Christopher Martin

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The Forever War

Dexter Filkins

(: Knopf)

This year’s best recounting of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq comes from the hand of Dexter Filkins, one of those veteran foreign correspondents who you would consider yourself lucky to end up sitting next to at a bar. The stories he could tell. Filkins’ disconnected narrative—which dangles like a chain of beads strung together with wearied outrage—starts in the fury and clamor of a Fallujah firefight and rarely lets up. Hopscotching from Fallujah to Afghanistan and Ground Zero and back to Baghdad, Filkins presents a particularly searing vision of the seemingly endless wars that the public has by and large decided to turn away from. Few writers from these conflicts have managed to convey the tiring brutality of these grubby battles or the knee-shaking terror of combat where “the boundary between life and death shrank so much that it was little more than a membrane, thin and clear.” Many have (rightly) compared Filkins’ book to Michael Herr’s Vietnam War classic Dispatches, but in truth it’s The Forever War that future war dispatches should be compared to. Chris Barsanti

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Simon Armitage

The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist


Simon Armitage’s poetry is filled with dark humour and wry Yorkshire cynicism. He also has a gift for wringing near-endless meaning out of each well-chosen word. It should be no surprise that his new memoir Gig is made of similar material, but it’s remarkable that he manages to maintain the same richness of detail for a full 300 pages. Gig is the story of Armitage’s never-realised dream of becoming a rock god. He takes us on a journey from his early career in junior school concerts (playing the triangle) right through to his mid-life-crisis experiment in a band (The Scaremongers) with an old friend. It’s a hilarious look at failed dreams and dreams come true. In his discursive, chatty style, Armitage rambles all over the place—reliving great (and not so great) rock gigs he has witnessed, talking about TV shows he has worked on, and giving us insights into his eccentric family. It’s all held together by Armitage’s tremendous gift for language and his boundless enthusiasm for music and literature. He is an unashamed fan, writing for the pleasure of other fans, and it’s a joy to experience. David Pullar

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Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Mignon Fogarty

(Henry Holt & Company)

This is not merely a reference book for writers. Most of the information applies equally to our daily conversation, concisely clarifying routine language-related issues and tackling those little bits of linguistic friction that rub us the wrong way, or perhaps should rub us the wrong way.  Fogarty’s writing style seems to be influenced by the podcast format: Because many of her topics come from letters from listeners, her responses are always focused on a real and active audience. There isn’t any sense that she is simply explaining the rules; she seems to genuinely want her audience to learn. This is not your father’s grammar book: Fogarty speaks to a 21st century audience, her short pieces steeped with modern pop culture references and a bit of retro fun: She uses Star Trek’s “Borg” as an example of a singular collective noun (the Borg, she explains, are a sect with no sense of individuality, acting always as a collective); she calls out lessons from seminal language resource Schoolhouse Rocks (an underappreciated educational influence from a generation ago), and name drops Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas when discussing whether band names are singular or plural. Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is my favorite evidence of the welcome resurgence in syntactical attentiveness.  Bill Reagan

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I Live Here

Mia Kirshner, J. B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridges


In this innovative and unusually affecting “paper documentary”, actress Mia Kirshner (who works frequently with Amnesty International) enlisted a number of graphic artists to illustrate a quartet of stories about people stuck in spectacularly damaged parts of the world, from Malawi to Chechnya to Ciudad Juárez to Ingushetia, Chechnya. It’s an ambitious and uniquely collaborative way to work, with Kirshner mixing together her on-the-ground tales (sometimes told in the voices of those she speaks with) inside a vivid mélange of photos and graphic renderings. In the hands of others, this could have turned into a self-indulgent mess, but the raw power of the stories Kirshner tells, the tales of devastating oppression and neglect, simply blasts through any such concerns. This is a huge achievement and one of those few instances in which art can truly serve the cause of human rights. Chris Barsanti

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The Night of the Gun

David Carr

A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.

(Simon & Schuster)

Review [17.Sep.2008]
In a literary market flooded with addiction memoirs, New York Times reporter David Carr offers something new: a reported account of his years as a crack addict that serves as a searing cautionary tale, a harrowing chronicle of redemption, and a welcome corrective to the James Freys of the world. Supplementing his own flawed recollections with police reports, medical records, and the memories of as many past associates as he could find, Carr takes his readers on a breakneck tour of the addict’s life. Throughout, he displays such unflinching honesty and depths of thoughtfulness that it can be hard to believe this is the same man who stole from friends, assaulted lovers, and created hell on earth for all those unlucky enough to care about him. Such contradictions are at the heart of The Night of the Gun, a fact Carr doesn’t shy away from. “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?” he asks, early on. “What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare, and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking.” Of course, both stories are true. Carr’s greatest achievement is mapping the diverging paths of objective truth and the fictions we tell ourselves to make the present tolerable. Nav Purewal

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The Peel Sessions

Ken Garner

A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music

(BBC Books)

Review [15.Jun.2008]
Ken Garner’s Peel Sessions manages to please two types of geeks at once: those who pore over back issues of the Journal of Radio History, and those who habitually thumb through rock lists and record guides. Be forewarned that the subtitle —A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music—is misleading in that the book is not so much about UK radio icon John Peel the Man as it is about John Peel the Legacy. All of the boardroom negotiations are here, but so are details about the storied “Peel Sessions”, the rush-rush studio dates that captured thousands of artists in young-and-hungry mode from the late ‘60s to 2004, the year Peel passed away (Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” were both first broadcast as Peel sessions).  And if those sessionographies aren’t enough for the serious and casual reader alike, the appendices should really seal the deal, including as they do all of the “Festive Fifties”, Peel’s year-end tallies of tracks most popular with listeners, and the “Peelenium”, a feature in which Peel the hopeless pop music obsessive compiled his favorite songs of every year spanning the entire 20th century. Kim Simpson

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